The World Cup has captured the heart of the nation but as the spotlight shines on global football stars, we cannot continue to overlook the people behind the scenes. The stark reality is that as Harry Kane signs a new six-year contract with Tottenham Hotspur worth up to £200,000 a week[i] and the German team sign a sponsorship contract with Adidas worth 65 million euros a year[ii], there are workers in Bangladesh making the English World Cup kit on 21 pence an hour[iii] – a case that is by no means isolated.
Football has become a regular business like any other and increasingly clubs are professionalising their management, and thus face more scrutiny from a range of stakeholders, including investors and sponsors. While clubs are always under pressure to deliver financial results, we don’t see the same expectations towards environmental, social and governance (ESG) impacts. Whilst English streets have been filled with supporters chanting ‘It’s Coming Home’, why not use this momentum to drive home some clear reasons why the English Premier League should be engaging with the broader sustainability agenda?
The home of football
The reality is that football is a national passion driving around 800,000 fans wearing their beloved team’s jerseys to stadiums every weekend. Not only is football very deeply embedded in the English culture, it contributes greatly to the country’s economy. It is estimated that the industry supports over 100,000 jobs in the UK, pays more than £2.4bn in taxes and adds gross value around £3.4bn to GDP[iv]. The Premier League alone enjoyed revenues of more than £4.5 billion in 2016/17.
Not only does football contribute to the country’s economic and socio-cultural prosperity, it has great potential to lead by example through driving sustainability performance, transforming the nation’s passion into a vehicle for positive change. However, there is work to be done.
Looking at the Premier League’s engagement with sustainability reveals a series of common trends but mostly an absence of strategy. By sustainability strategy we mean a long-term approach to operate a business considering its ESG implications. Manchester City, for example, launched a CSR website back in 2010, which outlined the Club’s Corporate and Social Responsibility Strategy. This no longer exists, and information does not seem to appear elsewhere on the website.
With very few exceptions, clubs tend to have a narrow-minded perspective and incomplete understanding of their impacts and Corporate Responsibility. There is no doubt that the Premier League clubs have a long history of supporting communities through their foundations and that a handful are doing more to advance their environmental stewardship through single-use plastic commitments and energy savings schemes, but the net must be cast wider in terms of responsibility.
Clubs are exposed to a series of ESG risks that if not managed have an increasing ability to damage reputation and their licenses to operate, and ultimately dent their profitability. They engage daily with job sectors identified as highest risk for modern slavery, including temporary hospitality and security staff, and have lengthy supply chains that must be managed responsibly and ethically. However, very little attention is paid – or at least is not publicly disclosed – to these risks.
Moving forwards, clubs should be considering:
- Multi-dimensional thinking
Clubs are doing great things – particularly around community engagement and energy efficiency. However, a more holistic approach is required: one that encompasses responsible sourcing, promotes healthy choices, respects human rights and is open and transparent about how the stadiums are being run and what teams and fans are being supplied with, in terms of goods (kit, food and beverage) and services (cleaning, construction and maintenance).
2. Collaborating with peers, suppliers and broad civil society
Platforms for collaboration are increasingly evident and accessible. Clubs have an opportunity to engage with peers, suppliers and broader civil society to share both successes and difficulties, learn from others and benefit from collective action. British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS) and the newly initiated All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights are just two of examples of groups working towards the goal of sustainable and ethical behaviour across the board in sports.
3. Communicating with fans, investors and sponsors
Clubs must be accountable for their impacts and answer not only to investors and regulators’ disclosure demands, but wider society as well. Clubs should communicate to their stakeholders what they are doing – or how they are investing their resources. Key benefits include maintaining their license to operate as well as contributing to promoting a club’s image. They have great potential to lead by example, educating their fans about sustainability issues and promoting best practice in the wider sports sector. So, why not go beyond simple financial disclosures, build a sustainability strategy and tell their stories to society?
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